6 Things Chefs Don't Want You to Know About Food Trucks
Food trucks combine the deliciously prepared cuisine of a restaurant with the flawless atmosphere of an empty parking lot. It's no wonder we love them so. But one can't simply buy a truck, fill it with food, and start selling that food to wandering drunks. There's a whole nightmare of bureaucracy and the occasional knock-down, drag-out chef-fight to deal with first. We spoke to Lawrence Fama, a former food truck operator in Los Angeles, and Josh Gatewood, a food trucker out of New York City. Here's what they told us:
Starting A Food Truck Is Not A Spontaneous Thing
Food trucks are still a relatively new industry. Health departments across the country have struggled to define just what the appropriate standards should be. It's hard to say exactly what category food trucks fall under: They're vehicles, but they're also restaurants. This somehow results in more than twice as much paperwork as you'd need for either.
Lawrence told us, "Every city, county, and state has different bills of health, red tape, and paperwork needed. Just to operate in the L.A. area, I need city permits, two county permits (Los Angeles requires a practically new truck), and a state permit. And that means renewal every year, or for traveling to San Diego, getting even more county and city permits."
This is just for five bucks of gas. If you need a full tank, there's a blood test.
Brick-and-mortar restaurants don't like food trucks for the obvious reason that they're: A. competition, and B. competition with much less overhead. But food trucks have to jump through regulatory hoops that no traditional restaurant would even need to think about. Lawrence explained:
"I know of one truck that had to be closed down because they had a waffle iron inside. I personally got marked on an inspection for having a rice warmer not being on the original plans. One particularly wealthy city in L.A. county is probably the craziest, because the committee told us how much of a privilege it was to have a permit in their city -- a cute nickname for it would be 'the begging city,' because we would actually have to beg them for a permit for a food truck."
Typically, people are a lot more understanding of someone actively trying to bring them tacos.
The East Coast isn't any better. Josh told us:
"It's not like The Great Food Truck Race at all. You just can't set up shop like they do. It's a long, tedious process. New York City is very stringent. A New York City-wide permit means any of the five boroughs, but once you go into Jersey you need at least three different food truck permits."
There is very little overlap in the Venn diagram of "people who like to cook in trucks" and "people who like to file extensive, detailed paperwork."
Most Food Trucks Are Cleaner Than Actual Restaurants
Food trucks in general abide by much more stringent health guidelines than normal restaurants. Lawrence explained:
"The food trucks here are inspected three times as much as brick-and-mortar restaurants and need to pass more regulations despite having less food, less employees, and being in a much smaller place."
An inspector can give a Grade A to a restaurant by going in and out in 15 minutes, but when he goes to a food truck he'll go through it for hours, really trying to find things wrong. Questions like, "Do you keep food inside the seats?" are really degrading to answer.
"I wring 'em out to make the mole sauce" doesn't really get the laugh you're looking for.
L.A. food trucks average 3.6 violations, while normal restaurants average 7.8. Josh spent more time with the health inspector than he did with his regular customers:
"In New York, health inspectors show up without notice all the time. Generally, it's once every two months, while street-side restaurants get in around every six months. Restaurants can breathe a sigh of relief, but food trucks need to be at cleanroom standards. Every spare moment you will see someone cleaning."
For those who've always wondered who actually buys tire cleaner, there you go.
You may have picked up a bit of resentment from our sources toward those "real" restaurants. We assure you, the hate cuts both ways:
There Is A Secret War Between Restaurants And Food Trucks
If you're a restaurateur angrily shaking your fist at the free-wheeling rebels of the food truck industry, there's an easy way to strike out at them: call the cops.
"They make things up, saying we are littering or disturbing the peace, just to get us out of there. In downtown L.A. and Venice, they even start yelling at us, and then say to the cops that we started it. I can't tell you how many times the cops were called on us for simply finding a place to legally park and start serving food."
Although you can tell a couple are just looking for a shawarma kickback.
It's easy to see why the restaurants would be angry: Food trucks often park nearby, because a good location for a brick-and-mortar restaurant is also a good place to sling food at passersby from a truck.
"We park on streets with a lot of restaurants because that's where hungry people are. Even with lines going out the door, apparently we are still a threat."
You'd think the guy crammed into 30 square feet with three fryers and a grill would at least get a little sympathy leeway.
The potential financial risk isn't the only reason for the enmity, though. Food trucks are seen as disrupting the status quo, upstarts who break the traditional "rules" of cooking:
"Most of us didn't go to a culinary school or even have to wait many years in a restaurant to move up. We wanted to do our own thing, bought a cheap food truck, and started serving food there, so we are seen as 'not going through the right channels' to be a chef. In one city, I even heard one [restaurant owner] say to a cop that our trucks were 'a blight to the community.'"
So, to review, the blight order is now: poverty, gangs, then gyro trucks.
But this sort of thing is happening all over the U.S. Restaurant owners are pushing for more laws, getting governments to tack on more fees or just outright ban them. Over in New York City, Josh had his share of run-ins with The Man too:
"I once got to a spot at 46th and 5th at CVS headquarters, which is the best spot for lunch in New York City. For that place, we get out at 3:45 a.m., because any time after 4 there it's impossible to get a spot. But then the cops came and shut everyone down at 11. Why? Because, even though we were in a meter-free, totally legal area, there were 'noise complaints.' We didn't make noise, but you could see restaurant owners peeking out to watch."
Apparently all those angry 911 calls were really making a racket.
Getting kicked out of a spot isn't a minor inconvenience for Josh. It's an existential threat to his business. It's illegal to run a food truck from a metered spot, aka "almost every spot in NYC."
"So when we are kicked out because of a false charge or by an owner, and we won't find another spot all day, we make nothing."
Food Truck Explosions Are Worryingly Common
Food trucks contain enough flammable things to qualify them as instruments of war -- cooking oil, gasoline, propane, Sriracha. All that stuff necessitates a pre-run check that makes launching a 747 look slapdash. There's good reason to be paranoid about the state of a propane line: Last year a food truck in Philadelphia exploded due to a propane leak sparked by the grill. The same happened in Denver. And New York. And in, well, you get the picture.
If the operators don't check to make sure everything is cleaned and squared away before driving, they could find their mobile restaurant turned into a mobile napalm barrage.
"Screw it; we're a Cajun truck now."
Normal restaurants don't have to check every five minutes to see if propane is leaking. But an unchecked food truck is a ticking time bomb. So, before you take the lazy route to lunch, make sure the truck you plan to buy from has been maintained recently. Over 99 percent of food truck owners check things like this to an almost religious fervor, but if you notice a messy kitchen or rusty propane lines in that taco truck, you might want to run away from it in slow motion, then jump at the last second.
A Good Spot Is Literally Worth Fighting For
"A lot of truck owners think because they have parked in the same place three days in a row they should be entitled to the spot," Lawrence said. "In a place like the Santa Monica Pier or in Downtown L.A. with a lot of cops or security, there are usually no confrontations, just icy cold death stares from drivers who didn't get there first. But outside office complexes or construction sites? Be prepared for at least a shouting match."
According to Lawrence, most of the direct competition comes down to fights between trucks pitching the same style of edible wares. Variety is one thing, but if you're selling Mexican food and two other taco trucks pull in next to you, in theory they've just slashed your business by 66 percent. No one's going to wait in line if they can get almost identical fare next door.
Which may be why some food trucks start offering ... unique items.
New York has a lot less space than L.A., and a lot more competition for spots. According to Josh, this means things get much uglier:
"In Hanover Square in the Financial District another truck owner pulled up and yelled for us to get out of our spot. We said no, but every day they went by and asked us for our spot. So, during one day, they got out and simply just attacked us. Other food trucks got involved, and soon enough different owners were defending their trucks, because each spot meant that they could pay the bills that day. If they lost it to others taking it by force, then they would sink. Eventually the cops came, and like the CVS situation, sent everyone away, making everyone miss the lunch rush."
You Either Get A Restaurant Or Die
Most food truck owners actually buy a truck as a stepping stone toward either getting hired as a chef or starting their own brick-and-mortar restaurant. The food truck acts like a combination viral marketing campaign and mobile testing lab. Many new restaurants fail because they wind up with a bad location. Starting off with a food truck is a good way to know in advance if a location is highly trafficked, sparsely populated, or haunted by a pesky old man pretending to be a ghost in order to drive real estate prices down.
Parking there in a food truck named "You Meddling Ribs" was just a happy coincidence.
But here's the thing -- most food trucks make only enough to (barely) pay the bills. Josh is still going (and was able to get started only after winning on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire), but Lawrence had to end it after two years because he was barely breaking even. He went back to working in other people's food trucks.
Pictured: Josh's Truck. Also, the very concept of patriotism, on wheels.
The trick is to make good food that's unique enough to draw people in, but not crazy enough to scare them away. To the man on the street, food trucks are a slightly more convenient, slightly cheaper alternative to sitting down in a restaurant. But to the people who run them, they're a dangerous gamble, a lottery ticket that might net them a hit restaurant, break their credit history forever, or explode half a city block when the propane line knocked loose by a pothole meets the stoner toking up behind the truck to "really get in the burrito zone."
Evan V. Symon is the Personal Experience Team interview finder guy. If you have an awesome experience or job you would like to see as an article, hit up the tipline at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lawrence has a radio show on food every Thursday night at 8 p.m. PT here. Josh is on Twitter, and if you are in New York, stop by his food truck and eat the best chicken tenders ever. They taste like America.
For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Lies Reality Shows Rely On (That Are Worse Than You Think) and 5 Disgusting Truths About Every Restaurant (From a Chef).
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